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Pandemics: Hope from history

For the past 20 years, William & Mary Associate Professor of History Gérard Chouin has studied pandemics in the context of sub-Saharan Africa (see his latest research). Living in the current crisis makes him feel "vulnerable," he admits, but he suggests that historians do have context that proves the "resiliency" of affected populations. Recently, he spoke about it to W&M News.


How did you become interested in the possibility that pandemics affected sub-Saharan Africa?

This is a long story that started in 2001 when I discovered that a particular type of settlement site in southern Ghana had been abandoned at a regional level in the second half of the 14th century. That triggered a long process that resulted in gradually exploring a set of methods that could help us to make the invisible pandemic visible.

What leads you to postulate the Black Plague reached that far?

One is a vast process of change in settlement patterns, including the abandonment of regionally important sites that had been previously occupied for a very long time. We also looked at changes in mortuary practices and political structure.

We also had a fresh look at written sources, where they exist, particularly in Ethiopia, and found mention of plague saints and of a disease that fits quite well what we know of the plague. One of the most exciting finding was the survival in East Africa of a strain of the plague that is a direct descendant of the pathogen involved in the disease in Europe and Eurasia in the 14th century.

It is distinct from strains of the pathogen that circulated during the third plague pandemic that started in the late 19th century and is still a source of the disease in the area, especially in Madagascar. Recently, I started a new project with a new team, and we are looking at other threads such as a technological hiatus in metallurgy and glassmaking. We are also looking at changes in occupation density with the discovery of ancient abandoned agrarian landscapes. 

You suggest archaeology will be determinant; what do you mean?

In most of sub-Saharan Africa, there are no written records of the plague, and we need to look for evidence of the plague in the archaeological landscape. This is not an easy task, as archaeological features that would result from a pandemic could also result from a range of other processes.

We are working at strengthening our hypothesis by demonstrating that the archaeological record was affected by a depopulation process at a very large scale, and that such a process cannot result from any other known cause that a pandemic.

The silver bullet will be to find DNA in human remains in mass burials connected with the event. We are not yet there, but we are working on it, with the discovery of a new site in Gabon by Richard Oslisly. Results of analyses will be available when labs get to work again.

How could your research transform our understanding of the history of the region?

There is much we do not understand about African history before the 15th century. The grand African pre-modern historical narrative was written in the 1960s and has not changed much since. It needs a deep revision, and the plague hypothesis enables us to make sense of large-scale changes that are taking place between the 14th and the 15th century, for instance, the end of the leadership of Mali on a vast mosaic of polities we often call Mali Empire or the end of Great Zimbabwe.

In a recent article I co-authored with Ph.D. candidate Olanrewaju Lasisi (in Anthropology), we looked at the root of Atlantic slavery in the processes of political fragmentation that we believe took place after the pandemic... Indeed, we believe the Atlantic history could have been different if it had not been built on the ruins of a much older political landscape.

Have you experienced pushback?

I experienced pushback at the very beginning of my quest. I was not yet very well equipped intellectually to understand the complexity of a pandemic and of the plague. It took me time to get a good grasp of the literature and find the appropriate scholars who were ready to engage. My best response is that we need to take into account the 'pan-' dimension in a pandemic.

Africa was very well connected to the rest of the Old World in the 14th century, through the Sahara, the Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean. In this condition, how could a pandemic remain at the door of the African continent? We saw a bit of this with COVID-19.

Some people predicted a catastrophic impact on the continent (which is not yet clear - but potentially related to problems of visibility), while others thought the disease would not enter Africa because of its climatic and environmental specificities. Because COVID-19 has the attributes of a pandemic, it did not spare Africa, although the impact of the disease on the continent remains challenging to assess. 

Pandemics alter civilizations. Are there examples from history that are/will be played out in our modern world?

Yes, the world is never the same after a pandemic, and our civilization will experience change. What shape will the changes take remains unclear? We could imagine quite some impact on international relations, with the United States losing its leadership position, which in turn could lead to conflicts (Plague and war syndrome).

We could imagine China becoming much more aggressive in world affairs, especially in Africa and in the Indian Ocean. We could see a drastic change in the way production is organized globally, with the repatriation in Europe and in North America of some of the industries that have long been relocalized; and this would foster innovation.

We could see emerging new concerns with controlling population movements, border protocols, and severe limitations on individual freedom as understood today. We could see a rise of anti-globalization movements and mistrust towards supranational organizations such as the European Union or the United Nations, and this could lead to the growth of authoritarian regimes. We could witness a partial collapse of mass transportation by air, leading to significant difficulties for the aeronautic industry.

Many changes will be experienced shortly, political, social, technological. What they will be is not immediately apparent, and it will depend on the death toll and on the amount of time we will live with the virus, and how much time will pass until we are confronted with the next one. There is a chance that alterations will be limited if a vaccine comes up in the next 18 months. We are fortunate that the mortality rate of the novel coronavirus remains relatively low compared with other historical pandemics because I think there could be a correlation between mortality, duration and the amplitude of change.